Is a fabulous Porsche entry model all the better for having a smaller, more powerful heart?
For: Massive driving appeal, great build quality.
Against: Less refined idle note, expensive.
DOWNSIZING: It’s all the rage, with good result.
The mid-life update of the Porsche Boxster gives little visual clue to the smaller-is-smarter credo. In terms of physical dimension the change is … well, no change whatsoever, really, a slight reshape changing a few mills here and there, no more. Just as well, because it’s already a pert machine.
You know where this is going. The engine bay, of course. The ‘718’ badge designation announces Porsche’s decision to swap the Boxster’s classic six-cylinder boxer motor, which the base car had in 2.5- then 2.7-litre format, for a 2.0-litre turbocharged four.
Why? Not to make savings in the factory, that’s for sure. By reputation Porsche has the highest provide margin of any brand within the Volkswagen world; there’s assuredly plenty of fat. This is the world calling. Car manufacturers are having to meet ever-tightening economy standards, not least in countries where the words ‘air’ and ‘quality’ no longer sit easily together.
The entry level car sustains most extreme revision and initial international media reaction has been mixed, with harsh reaction to the sound of the thing. Fair point? If you’re a student of mechanical engineering, you understand the relationship between an engine’s layout and the sound it produces. Generally speaking, more cylinders sound better.
Anyway, Porsche is on the counter-attack already. There’s now a viral ad in which leading works drivers Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Kiwi ace Brendon Hartley – the son of an engine builder, no less - improbably but harmlessly promote the 718 Boxster roadster as being better than their WEC-winning 919 Hybrid.
IF any car stands testimony to the adage that good design stands the test of time, then it’s the Boxster: Incredible to think Porsche started its roadster programme 20 years ago.
Those first gen cars still look pretty good on the road, though it’s equally valid to suggest that the latest also cuts a real dash, too. Perhaps stung by feedback that the first was a touch too toylike and effete, Porsche has progressively added aggression, with positive result.
It still doesn’t have quite the special racetrack-ready air of a 911, but you definitely sense a more defined degree of ferociousness with the latest refit that’s all about subtle reshaping.
While leaving the dimensions little altered (it’s within 5mm of the outgoing car on length and 2mm on height and it has the same width and wheelbase) and the general silhouette highly familiar, the update nonetheless effects enough change to the aluminium and steel body for Porsche to claim that the only exterior parts carried over unsullied from the old car are the luggage compartment covers and cloth roof. Everything else, including those trademark headlamps, have been refreshed in the pursuit of perfection.
The quality of Porsche’s work is undeniable; this brand is big enough now to run full-scale production lines, yet the sports cars still lend impression that they have been hand-built by artisans.
Being the least-expensive product in the portfolio has never left Boxster looking cheap - not that, at $130,900 as tested, the car here could be considered ‘budget’, though in this instance the sticker was fattened by almost $10k thanks to the addition of accessories, an inevitability with Porsche test cars.
Wheel size has more effect on a car’s kerbside look than anything else and, it has to be said, our vehicle looked all the more special on the 20 inch Carrera rims that are two inches larger than the factory fare. Mind you, this is Jimmy Choo-like footwear at $5410 for the wheels and tyres set plus another $2080 for the rims’ ‘platinium silk’ finish. I trust all testers took the same care I did in keeping clear of kerbs. Also added to this car was a roll bar in the exterior colour ($1160); park assist with camera ($1500); the ‘connect plus’ infotainment suite ($1180) and power steering plus ($600).
Slip inside and the Boxster remains a snug, yet welcoming, fit. The image of it being foremost for poseurs might still hang over this car, but when you’re at the wheel the overwhelmingly stronger sense is that this is a machine for drivers. The backside-securingly cosy command chair positions the occupant in a perfect location in front of the controls though the miniature size, close proximity and intricate feel of the brake and accelerator pedals rewards the earing of hin-soled and narrow driving shoes.
Not content with making the steering gear quicker, Porsche has also cut the diameter of the standard steering wheel to 375mm. It also delivers reshaped air vents, new trim colours and treatments and a new infotainment system controlled from the seven-inch touchscreen in the dashboard.
This latest Porsche Communication Management system comes with Bluetooth connectivity as standard, as well as Apple CarPlay for the first time, to enhance the six-speaker stereo and gadget connectivity, but just as impressive was its ease of operation and how the screen retained good resolution even when in direct sunlight. Bose audio is standard but a more expensive Burmester option is there if required; though as always, when you running with the roof down at pace, any kind of system is fighting a losing battle to be heard over the road, engine and wind noise.
Conversely, though, on-the-move phone calls proved no particular challenge: The microphone seems to be sited in a quiet zone so you needn’t have to yell to be heard; likewise I had no trouble hearing incoming calls – though, because the speakers seem to be set to auto-boost the phone volume, you’ll find that everyone else in the car’s proximity will also be able to listen in, as well, when the car is at a standstill.
Even though its power soft top is a masterpiece of German precision – it’s watertight, flap free and easy to operate - roadsters by necessity require interiors that will survive weathering in the most literal sense; the chances are that, sooner or later, this cabin is going to be xaught put by a rain shower. Inevitably that potential has effect on the level of material quality and design sophistication, so it’s to Porsche’s credit that this environment carries a modern and expensive feel.
Aside from the obvious dynamic benefits, the plus point from it being a mid-engined car comes with the practicality; rather than having to shoehorn a long weekend’s luggage into one small boot, you can split it between two. With 275 litres of combined storage (150 front, 125 rear), this car will hold more than twice as many of your bags, shopping and sports gear than the like-sized Mazda MX-5.
Euro NCAP doesn’t test Porsches – not enough are sold to warrant the cost – but with rollover hoops to protect the occupants, airbags, a tyre pressure monitoring, traction control, anti-lock brakes and stability control all being standard, the Boxster seems well-sorted for the kind of incident you’d never want to experience.
No matter how sound and sensible the requirement for its inclusion, and despite the link to Porsche’s racing history (those 718 race cars of the early 1960s), the new-generation four-cylinder engines are going to take time to bed back in with purists, not least because the six-cylinders that were previously used were such epochal engines.
Still, don’t think the good times are over. Yes, this is a new and very different experience, but by no means a bad one.
On past buyer trends, the 220kW/380Nm 2.0-litre version of this mid-mounted, horizontally-opposed four-cylinder drivetrain will be less respected that the alternate 257kW/420Nm 2.5 that arrives in the more expensive S version, yet it will nonetheless command more buyers.
The cylinder count has reduced, but the technology level certainly hasn’t. Both engines have the same 76.4mm cylinder stroke and significantly oversquare cylinders and feature a single turbocharger (the S a variable geometry compressor) which employs a traditional wastegate, with engine gases passing through a single oval tail pipe on the base model car or two centrally located round tailpipes on the upscale model.
While the base engine lacks the S’s variable-geometry turbine technology to help with low-end response, it shares the smart tweak of being able to ‘pre-condition’ the turbo when part-loaded by retarding ignition timing slightly and increasing throttle position to compensate.
As smart as this all sounds, inevitably discussion will turn to the noises it makes. On that note, there’s a spread of sound. Get the thing going and this engine makes some genuinely beautiful noises; shuffling from a baritone offbeat flutter into a more dramatic rasp and, with the exhaust on ‘Sports’ mode, a snap, crackle and pop on the overrun.
What’s upsetting to critics is how it behaves at idle. There’s a really cantankerous edge, especially when the engine is cold, that doesn’t quite gell with the claim that this is the world’s best-sounding four-cylinder. It’s astoundingly bogan, with a chuffy and raw, metallic basso tenor. The sound took me back to cars of my past; a couple of Subaru WRX STi rally cars that mates used to compete with and, before that, the ancient VW Beetle my wife retains fond memories for.
An acquitted taste? As a Subaru fan, it’s a noise I’m quite comfortable with, yet I can understand why some mechanical sommeliers won’t be. After the smooth growl of the bygone six-pot, this engine creates an unrefined clatter that almost jars with everything else that the car represents in respect to its image of German precision. But that’s only at idle; prod the throttle or get the car moving and the roughness is left behind.
On paper, the Boxster is the least powerful and most modest of all Porsche’s two-seater cars – a status that means nothing at all on the road.
Porsche doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘slow.’ Pick a sports car-suited route and you’ll discover a driving mannerism that is hard to knock – it’s a beautifully balanced and utterly enveloping experience; there’s a huge amount of grip, the steering is engagingly telepathic and precise – and apparently 10 percent more direct than before - and it feels so right on some roads you just want to drive them over and over again. As we did for the accompanying video.
It’s not ferociously fast, but fast enough to be a lot of fun. Zero to 100kmh comes up in 4.7 seconds with the optional seven-speed PDK automated manual gearbox and though the S model is 0.5s faster still, the entry model nonetheless evidences every potential for being able to hold its own on the street or a sinuous country route.
This engine isn’t hard work; but this drivetrain does demand to be worked hard. The power delivery is much less linear than the old engine’s; there is enough turbo lag to sometimes lend sensation that the accelerator is bungee-linked. The revability and flexibility that makes Porsche engines special is still here – there’s power down low and a natural eagerness to explore its rev ceiling, but bearing in mind that while peak torque materialises between 1950rpm and 4500rpm, it actually doesn’t get to down full business until 5000rpm – just like the old six-cylinder – so you have to give it, and that gearbox, the beans. But involvement is what sports cars are about, right?
So what of fuel consumption, the parameter that drove the cylinder cull? No surprise, perhaps, that on my run the Boxster achieved worse fuel economy than the official rating of 6.9 litres per 100km. Hey, when you’re handed the keys to a car such as this, it’s hard to drive it as you might a Prius. On an easy-going three-hour open road run that comprised part of the test, the car got into the ‘8s’ – but, once it was put to work on some deliciously racey routes … well, straight into double figures. Again, though, it’s a sports car. Not driving it as such is almost a crime, right?
And that’s where the ‘wrong’, if it seems that way, of this car’s construct is simply left behind: When you drive a challenging road — say something packed with slow and fast sweepers — and realise it seems not only so easy, but so enjoyable, with more control and comfort than anything you have driven there before, then … well, it just wins the day. Because, regardless of the size of the fight in this car, it’s still in the correct place - behind the two-seat cockpit and ahead of the rear axle.
This engine is of utterly different character than the one it usurps. That doesn’t make it worse – or better. Just different. The last time I drove a Boxster, it had the top-line six-cylinder, then a 3.2-litre. I handed the keys in with regret.
Same again this time.